Family, friends and members of Adelaide’s thoroughbred racing community gathered at Mater Christi Church, Seaton, on February 1 to celebrate the life of well-known South Australian race caller John O’Neil.
John passed away on the same date that he commenced his racing career – January 26, Australia Day.
He made his debut as a race caller at the Barmera Trotting Club for the Australia Day meeting in 1949 after becoming interested in horse racing while a student at Christian Brothers College.
While still at school he had a chance meeting with 5DN race caller Matt Hynes who asked him to help him out at the track. A few years later he had the opportunity to make his first call at Barmera for the Riverland station 5RM.
Following in his father’s footsteps, John joined the South Australian Railways at Islington where he worked for 43 years until 1991, while also pursuing his race calling and media career.
The high-rating Melbourne radio station 3UZ, where the master broadcaster Bert Bryant was the resident race caller, enlisted John to broadcast the Saturday Adelaide races, a position he held for many years.
John was a regular at 3UZ for the Saturday morning program Three Way Turf Talk which was compulsory listening for the dedicated punter. Over the same period he worked as a journalist and TV sports presenter on Channel 10.
John called Tulloch breaking the $100,000 prize money barrier at Cheltenham in 1961.
He called 27 Adelaide Cups and 27 Great Eastern Steeples at Oakbank.
Of the four race horses he owned, the most notable were Calling Boy in the 1960s and Attrition in the 1970s.
He worked with the best: Bill Collins, Bert Bryant, Ken Howard, Vince Curry and John Russell to name just a few.
Recognition from peers is the mark of a person’s achievements, yet John never made mention of the significant milestone awards he received – a true sign of a quiet achiever.
In the 2005 Queen’s Birthday Honours John received an Order of Australia Medal for his services to racing and the media and in 2006 he was inducted into the SA Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame.
Since 2001 John hosted a racing program on Adelaide Coast FM until he was admitted to hospital, such was his commitment and loyalty.
He also hosted a 45-minute Mount Gambier Gold Cup preview on Radio ABC and until recently was course announcer for the South Australian Jockey Club.
John was a founding member of the Adelaide racing fraternity Mass committee which held its first meeting at the Queen’s Head Hotel in North Adelaide in 1964. Since then, there has been a racing Mass held every year on the weekend of the Adelaide Cup.
John and his family had a long association with Mater Christi Church where his funeral Mass was conducted by Father Joe Giacobbe from Yarraville, Melbourne, who met John in 1979 through his involvement in the racing industry and had been a friend ever since.
He described John as a “true Christian gentleman, not a pious, sanctimonious do-gooder”, but rather a person who lived the Gospel message.
“John was the consummate professional who excelled at his craft but that’s only part of John’s life story,” Fr Joe said.
“More importantly John was a fine, decent and Christian human being. As a family man, friend and mate he was welcoming and non-judgmental with a positive disposition to life and people.”
Fr Joe said John had given many ‘good tips’ over the years, and asked what his tip would be on the day of his funeral?
“Racing people are optimists, so how do we turn the diminishing and disempowering experience of death into a positive?
“Reflecting on the values that were pivotal to John’s way of life, let’s make the commitment that because one of our community is no longer with us, we each do that little bit more to implement those values in our own life.
“People are only dead when they are forgotten. To live in the hearts and minds of those we leave behind is not to die, so while John’s physical presence is no longer with us the memories of his values and good times remain with us.
“So we say not in grief that John O’Neil is no more but we live in thankfulness for the person he was and the good that he did.”
John is survived by his loving wife Laureen (Lauri), children Kevin and Sharyn, and grandchildren Edward, Alexandra and William.
Jump to next article